Who's to Blame for Britney? or The Dumbing-Down of Culture

Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 08:17 am
Who's to blame for Britney?

When people talk of the dumbing-down of our culture, they invariably make a scapegoat of the media. But high art, says Alan Rusbridger, is everyone's responsibility

Thursday May 8, 2003
The Guardian


Last autumn I spent a couple of days at the New York Times. The staff (not to mention several thousand readers) were still recovering. On the paper's sober, hallowed front page - the nearest thing journalism can boast to a tablet of stone - there had recently appeared a story about Britney Spears. The Manhattan sky had fallen in. Fights broke out among Times staffers. The paper's switchboard was jammed. The editor was denounced the length and breadth of the Upper East Side. It had finally happened: the great New York Times had dumbed down.

To visiting British eyes, the debate seemed a little old hat. I thought back to raging rows we had had back in April 1994 over the death of Kurt Cobain. There were some on the staff who thought Cobain beneath the attention of Guardian readers - no matter that half their children had been up all night in tears.

In the end we carried hundreds of words on the suicide. Part of our thinking was, to be frank, strategic. How could we convince the next generation of readers that newspapers were relevant to their lives if we ignored stories that were, well, relevant to their lives? But actually, it was right in news terms to cover Cobain's death properly. However you look at it, it was a significant story about the world as it was. Not as we would like it to be, but as it was.

And of course we were accused of dumbing down. The same furious fights they've been having in New York over Britney. And this same debate has raged not only in newspapers, but in more or less any organisation that deals in creative and intellectual property.

You might say two things about this current debate. One is that it is utterly understandable. We've all seen enough dumbing-down in our lives to want to be on guard against any more manifestations of it. The other is that the debate is a terribly confused one. One in which we can't quite find even the right language to describe our fears. Concepts such as elitism, a canon of works, access, diversity and standards clash into each other - or, worse still, miss altogether.

Would many of us prefer to live in a world in which Britten or Birtwistle outsold Britney or Limp Bizkit? Of course. But if you're running a newspaper - notionally there to report the world as it is, rather than the world as we'd like it to be - you have to make tricky decisions about how much you can skew your coverage towards cultural forms that, however important, do not seem terribly popular in relative numerical terms. Certainly, any newspaper that had the same age profile as the audience for classical music concerts would be thinking about filing for chapter 11 protection.

Surveys suggest that you have a 4% chance of finding anyone under the age of 24 at an average classical music concert, and a further 6% under 34. Young people appear overwhelmingly to find other sorts of music more appealing - and it's not dumb to explore that, or even celebrate it. The Britney Spears phenomenon is an interesting one. It was reported at one point that she even stirred the flinty heart of the prime minister's official spokesman. It would be perverse of the NYT not to write about her.

How ridiculous the London Times of the 1960s now seems. There it was at the heart of the most extraordinary cultural explosion - the music Tony Blair grew up with: the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd, the Who - and barely a word about any of it was allowed into the paper.

The official history of the Times speaks of this period under Sir William Haley in these terms: "Though the Beatles' music was discussed by the paper's music critic, and reference made to the 'chains of pan-diatonic clusters' discernible in it, Beatlemania and all that it represented was beneath Haley's notice."

This was a paper that sold itself under the slogan "Top People Read the Times". It was unashamedly elitist. A paper run by the same man who, when he was running the BBC, said of the Third programme that it should aim at people "of taste and intelligence and education... it need not cultivate any other audience".

But I've just stubbed my toe on that problem word "elitist". The lowest term of abuse for some, the highest accolade for others. Should we accept that classical music is an elite art form and stop fretting? Or should we do everything in our power to cultivate the widest possible audience for it, regardless of the compromises that might involve? Even, as Sir Tom Allen shuddered last year, to quartets in wet T-shirts.

It is evident that many people working in - and treasuring - the serious arts still feel embattled. It seems to them as if there is a widespread philistinism around: a remorseless drive in favour of the predominant commercially successful mass culture.

Anyone with teenage kids will know how overwhelming the influence of a few gargantuan entertainment companies is today. The sums ploughed into creating, promoting and selling particular strands of popular culture - and the overwhelmingly effective marketing of celebrity - are simply staggering.

So who to blame? The media? People usually do. But musicians are asking themselves enough searching questions to suggest that there is no knee-jerk attack on this perennially convenient punchbag.

Should we then blame the big entertainment corporations? That seems a little harsh. You might, I think, reasonably accuse them of a failure of nerve over more serious forms of music. But they have shareholders. They have to make money, and they have perfected (we're talking pre-MP3) ways of catering for - or manipulating - mass tastes.

What about publicly funded organisations that - precisely because they don't have the pressure to turn in quarter-on-quarter growth - might have been expected to do better? This is nearer the mark, I think. There are two in particular that, it seems to me, had some sort of duty to champion forms of culture not simply in deference to that rather grim piece of accountant-speak, "market failure", but because they are intrinsically valuable and glorious.

One is the BBC. There has, until very recently, been a terrible failure of Corporate nerve over the televising of serious arts programmes for mainstream audiences. How on earth did it happen that for so many barren years the BBC governors nodded on the job while the arts output all but withered away?

It can't be that the governors don't like art or music. It's an interesting exercise to go through the Who's Who entries of the people in charge during the mid- to late 1990s. Nearly all of them indicate some sort of professional or personal interest in the arts. Yet, collectively, they never stamped their feet and said the BBC's commitment to the arts was verging on shameful.

The other obvious target is government. Again, how did it happen that music education in this country - full of significant and exciting initiatives - was decimated? How did it happen that our politicians - a quarter of whom (read Who's Who again) boast of their love of music - presided over the gradual destruction of a system which, if not perfect, was pretty good? When you have loved something yourself, how can you pull the ladder up on the next generation?

Destroying things is notoriously easier than rebuilding them. So, though we finally have real signs of progress at the top, there are mountains to climb.

Many people will have been struck by the story of the tank outside the Baghdad Museum a little more than three weeks ago. The museum - which holds one of the greatest collections of antiquities anywhere in the world - knew what was likely to happen when civil order broke down. As they knew it would. They warned the world. The world didn't really listen. The nearby American tank crew shrugged off frantic appeals from museum staff to move a few yards and block off the entrance. They had no orders. It was not enough of a priority.

Again, you wonder, how did this happen? Washington is full of wonderful museums. The war planners doubtless spend weekends in them with their families, to learn, to be enriched. Just like politicians and BBC governors love their art and their theatre and their music.

It is an interesting question: how can priorities in the personal lives of those who have the power not translate into priorities for others?

So, yes, newspapers do have a duty. Not only to nurture, explain and report on all aspects of our culture, from Britney to Britten. But also to question and hold accountable those who know the importance of art and have the power actually to do something. To report when they do something. And also to report when they do nothing.

Sometimes it doesn't take much. The tank in Baghdad needed to move 60 yards. Because it wasn't anyone's priority, 14,000 priceless artefacts were lost. On such small decisions - to act, or not to act - hang extraordinary consequences.

ยท This is an edited version of a speech given last night at the Royal Philharmonic Society Awards. Alan Rusbridger is the editor of the Guardian.
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Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 08:19 am
I am fascinated by this article, and its discussion of our obligation to keep the arts from "dumbing-down" vs. our need to include all generations in the arts. What do you think?
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Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 08:48 am
Re: Who's to Blame for Britney? or The Dumbing-Down of Cultu
macsm11 wrote:

But I've just stubbed my toe on that problem word "elitist". The lowest term of abuse for some, the highest accolade for others. Should we accept that classical music is an elite art form and stop fretting? Or should we do everything in our power to cultivate the widest possible audience for it, regardless of the compromises that might involve? Even, as Sir Tom Allen shuddered last year, to quartets in wet T-shirts.

I think that this is a good point. There are a lot of people who are intimidated by the thought of going to a classical music concert or an opera or ballet because these things have been presented as an "elite" art form, seperate from the masses. I know people who like to listen to classical music, but the idea of actually going to see the Philharmonic sends them into some kind of weird self-consciousness -- they don't feel "smart" enough or "sophisticated" enough.

My city has started a great advertising campaign for the Opera company here -- the most recent was for "Romeo and Juliet". In the commercials they would have written on the screen "He killed her brother" "He snuck into her room at night" "No wonder her father hated him" and added a bit of humor and even a little Jerry Springerishness to it. The attendance at the opera for the last year or so since they began advertising the shows like this has risen dramatically.

So, it may be that arts companies and supporters are going to have to admit that it comes off as elitist and that making the arts more accessable to the masses may be what it takes to get back on the front page of the NY Times.
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Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 08:55 am
Re: Who's to Blame for Britney? or The Dumbing-Down of Cultu
So, yes, newspapers do have a duty. Not only to nurture, explain and report on all aspects of our culture, from Britney to Britten. But also to question and hold accountable those who know the importance of art and have the power actually to do something. To report when they do something. And also to report when they do nothing.

I doubt many people question the need for the media to report on all aspects of our culture. I would guess however, that a lot of them question HOW the media does that reporting.

Is the fact the Brittany got her navel pierced front page news? Kurt Cobain's death probably was worthy in a 5 or 6 line "quickie" on page 2 or 3 with more in-depth reporting in the Arts section of the papers. Did it need to take up half of the front pages every day for a month?

Why should the release of Cher's latest album get front page coverage when a story about 1,500 people in Bangladesh drowning in floods gets buried on page 6 as a "News in Brief" article?

In newspapers at least, the front pages have traditionally been reserved for the latest "hard news'. It's their inability to distinguish between that hard news and the fluff stories that brings on the critisism.
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Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 10:25 am
I agree with fishin. The newspapers do not distinguish between news and fluff. I'd bet if you looked at the front page of any newspaper this morning, there is no actual 'news' on there. It's reiteration, feature stories, updates, etc..

I sometimes feel that society has been incredibly 'dumbed down' and we are at a loss for any real art and culture. Then I am reminded that America has always had it's sexpots and scandals, and they have graced the front page long before the year 2000.

I am reminded of Burlesque, Josephine Baker, Elvis Presley, gangland shootings, prohibition, speakeasies, pin-up girls, Marilyn Monroe, the affairs of kings and queens and presidents.......

Sex, drugs, scandal and the public's interest in it isn't a disease of modern time. It is the fascination of all time. The newspapers have always had their darlings - those they protect, those they hound until they expire, and those they follow because they are guaranteed a good story.

And as far as the destruction of museums and the theft of antiquities, well, it's been happening through the ages.....Egypt wants all their stuff back....

All I'm saying is, none of this is news or a new opinion or something that rests solely on the shoulders of the current generations.
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Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 01:12 pm
At the very least, the commercial makers should be taken to task for referring to Tybalt as Juliet's brother rather than her cousin.
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Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 01:27 pm
Quick answer:

Culprit # 1: TV. Ratings say who lives and who dies. Less people read. Written media has to follow the public, or at least accomodate, in order to survive. There is a politically correct alibi, in the media: it's called "niches".

Culprit # 2: Massive consuming. The lot of Homer Simpsons spends much more money than the few Frasier Cranes.
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Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 01:35 pm
The media recently reported that Leo di Caprio is dating a new supermodel, and this was supposedly news. Of course he is dumbasses, he is Leo di Caprio....

However, to blame the media is knee-jerking. Ultimately, don't we really have ourselves to blame for creating, consciously or not, a need for sensationalism because most people are too feckin bored and/or distracted to actually support real culture, or too uneducated? Junk culture as population control is perhaps a topic for another thread....

Yet, real culture survives, endures, as it has through the ages. Perhaps the real question is do we spend our efforts trying to preserve the past or protect the future?
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Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 01:52 pm
But then that begs the question of what "real culture" is and who decides. The author of the article brought up the Beatles, but there are many other examples of those who were thought to be unworthy of the attention of cultured folk who have then become a bastion of culture in retrospect. I don't think Britney ever, ever will, but what about, like, Eminem? Who decides this stuff?
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Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 02:04 pm
Well, what I consider 'real culture' is entirely up to me Very Happy

Who defines real culture for the rest of the world is another very intriguing question...

Perhaps, given that so many artists were tortured souls, the definition of 'culture' should be this: The symbiotic relationship of talented, screwed up people with their 'educated' patrons who asess them as 'geniuses', the profits to be made for said patrons, the need for a buck for the artist, and the idiots who come out of the woodwork post mortem to claim back royalties for their 'inspiration'. Just a thought...
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Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 02:04 pm
You're right, sozobe, the dividing line is getting thinner and thinner.
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Reply Thu 8 May, 2003 07:29 pm
Will "the classics" survive?

Will Beethoven be played live by full orchestras for hundreds of people or only exist electronically on home stereos/computers?

Live theatre is even more ephemeral. It can't truly be recorded, but only performed and enjoyed live. Without an audience, it's only a rehearsal. Aristophanes' The Birds has been performed for nearly 2500 years - I wonder how much longer it will be around?
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Reply Fri 2 Jan, 2004 06:54 pm
yes, the classics will survive...there will always
be a huge audience for great art......
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Reply Fri 2 Jan, 2004 07:57 pm
Just a few quick thoughts:

I don't see an either/or thing. How about this/and?

Popular culture needs to be reported - and it will be. It is important to lots of people - lots of them very clever and discerning in their taste. Some of whom thankfully straddle both worlds. As in all worlds, the fluff tends to die after a bit, and the stuff with merit survive. As this year's bubble-gum music etc consumers grow up - and are replaced by new bubblers, with new crazes.

Whether "serious" outlets cover popular culture is up to them - but they will suffer if they have nothing - and if they fail to cover pop cataclysms. Frankly, I would be happier for serious outlets to include pop stuff, since the both worlds of consumers will then be exposed to more variety and points of view - good for both, I think.

The more variety we have in outlets, and the more intelligent the analysis of all aspects of culture, the better, I think...

Only connect....
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Reply Tue 27 Jan, 2004 04:57 pm
I agree with the bunny. And really, why would, for instance, "Romeo and Juliet", be any more important to future generations than Scooby Doo? The only reason any art stands the test of time is that it is thought to have relevance. One day the world may just look back and decide that Scooby Doo is high art, and Shakespeare may well be forgotten. And that will not necessarily be a negative thing. It will just mean that society has evolved past it.

Fortunately, I'll be long dead before that ever happens though (I hope).
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